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Analysis: New Charge Emerges in Bush Administration Case Against Saddam Hussein

Morning Edition: September 27, 2002

Iraq & Al Qaeda



BOB EDWARDS, host:

A new charge emerged this week in the Bush administration's case against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. For the first time, senior administration officials are saying there is solid evidence of contacts between the al-Qaeda network and Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says some al-Qaeda operatives may have received training in chemical or biological weapons while in Iraq. The reports go further than any made previously by the administration, but some intelligence officials are skeptical of the evidence. From the Pentagon, NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

In the months after September 11th, US intelligence agencies searched high and low for evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks. The effort was mostly unproductive. The ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers was initially reported to have met an Iraqi agent in Prague, but US intelligence officials concluded the reports were not accurate. A radical Islamic group with ties to al-Qaeda was found in Iraq, but it was not clear that Saddam Hussein supported the group. Then, during a NATO summit this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that a new CIA investigation had turned up evidence of an Iraq-al-Qaeda link. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice elaborated on the claim during an appearance Wednesday night on the PBS "NewsHour" program.

Dr. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (National Security Adviser): (From "NewsHour") We clearly know that there were, in the past, and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of al-Qaeda going back for, actually, quite a long time. We know, too, that several of the detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al-Qaeda in chemical weapons development.

GJELTEN: At the Pentagon yesterday, Rumsfeld said intelligence information on the Iraq-al-Qaeda link is evolving and comes from sources with varying degrees of reliability, but he insisted much of it is credible.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): Since we began after September 11th, we do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad. We have what we consider to be very reliable reporting of senior-level contacts going back a decade and of possible chemical and biological agent training.

GJELTEN: A senior intelligence official tells NPR that reports cited by the Bush administration are of a type that, quote, "raise as many questions as they answer." `It's possible there was training,' the official says, `but not certain. And what kind of training? By whom? At what level? For what purpose? None of that,' the official says, `is known.'

Rumsfeld said the United States has credible information that al-Qaeda operatives had discussions in Iraq about the possibility of getting safe haven there and about reciprocal, non-aggression arrangements, meaning al-Qaeda and Iraq would agree not to go after each other. That would be important, but not entirely surprising. The intelligence official says Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are `poles apart' in terms of ideology, but do have a common enemy in the United States. `In that sense,' the official says, `there may be some channels of communication between Baghdad and al-Qaeda, just as there are contacts between the Iraqi regime and radical Palestinian groups.'

How significant these al-Qaeda contacts are remains unclear. `There's just not that much more to say about this,' the intelligence official says. But the Bush administration is anxious to bolster its case against Saddam Hussein, and any evidence of ties to Osama bin Laden and his network makes the administration's work easier.

At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that he wanted to discuss the al-Qaeda-Iraq link publicly, before he left for his NATO meeting in Warsaw, but he had to wait for the information to be declassified. Rumsfeld said the reports he cited are based on recent information, but he could not verify that al-Qaeda operatives are currently in Baghdad. `Even if they were,' Rumsfeld said, `it's unlikely the US military would go looking for them anytime soon.' Tom Gjelten, NPR News, the Pentagon.

EDWARDS: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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